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University Leaders’ Public Advocacy: An Educational Asset in Creating Inclusive Climates

by Cassie L. Barnhardt, Amanda Mollet, Carson W. Phillips, Ryan L. Young & Jessica K. E. Sheets - 2018

Background: While it may appear that university leaders’ public advocacy is somewhat punctuated in today’s political environment, campuses have long been symbolic epicenters of civic discourse about contentious social issues in the United States. Scholarly discourse about university leaders’ advocacy has centered on when or how leaders have chosen to use it to facilitate productive interactions with political leaders and other strategic constituencies. Largely absent from these discussions is evidence detailing whether senior campus leaders’ public advocacy has any discernable effects on the campus climate and educational environment.

Research Question: In this analysis, we ask: Does public and vocal advocacy for educational values by senior campus leaders translate into cultivating a campus climate that corresponds to the values and messages being communicated in the leaders’ rhetoric? What, if any, educational impact results from campus leaders’ public advocacy?

Research Design: The quantitative data for this analysis come from the Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory (PSRI) that was developed through the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) Core Commitments initiative. This campus climate survey consists of two parallel and largely parsimonious forms—one for students and one for professionals (faculty, instructors, and student and academic affairs administrators). Data were gathered in 2007. The sample consists of 10,693 responses, three-fourths of which were from students and the remaining one-fourth from professionals. We used OLS regression to generate a blocked model examining the effects of exposure to senior leaders’ public advocacy for particular educational values on the campus community’s perception of the climate.

Findings/Results: Senior campus leaders’ public advocacy for educational values (citizenship, valuing diverse perspectives, moral and ethical conduct, and academic effort) operated as a positive resource for improving the campus climate for diversity. Frequent exposure to leaders’ advocacy for valuing diverse perspectives generated the largest effects on the extent to which the educational climate is viewed as one where faculty teach about the importance of considering diverse views, students are respectful when discussing controversial issues, and campus community members feel safe in holding unpopular positions on campus. Findings also revealed that the extent to which all campus community members felt safe to hold unpopular positions on campus declined when there was greater racial homogeneity among students, academic employees, and service and support employees.

Conclusions/Recommendations: When campus community members experienced sustained and frequent exposure to administrative leaders who publicly discussed educational values, a campus can expect to experience positive gains in aspects of the psychological, behavioral, and structural dimensions of the campus climate for diversity. This study also suggests that in order to create an environment where diverse discourse is more likely, campuses need to be attentive to the demographic composition across the entire organization, therefore seeking ways to cultivate compositional racial diversity among all members—students, academic employees, and service and support employees.

In the current political and cultural climate, university leaders public speech and advocacy is receiving renewed consideration (Allen, Watkins, & Kaler, 2016). Arguably, university leaders public speech should transmit educational values such as privileging evidence over ideology and inclusion over intolerance (Mackey, 2016; Maxwell, 2016; McGuire, 2016; Rosenberg, 2016). Maxwell aptly noted, however, that university leaders tend to have strong disincentives (such as risking the universitys favor with politicians), to publicly advocate for complicated issues such as diversity or inclusion. Despite external pressures, some university leaders continue to comment publicly on how their campuses should address issues of diversity and inclusion generally, or they advocate specifically for supporting campus community members with marginalized social identities such as immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, or religious minorities (see Jaschik, 2016; Jordan, 2007; Jost, 2016; Rosenberg, 2016). Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for example, in anticipation of a potentially anti-immigrant stance of the Trump administration, nearly 600 college presidents engaged in public advocacy by signing a statement of support for their undocumented immigrant students (Pomona College, 2016; Redden, 2016). In addition, 194 college presidents issued a call for the newly elected administration to support climate science research and to work toward carbon reduction (Second Nature, 2016; Seltzer, 2016). A group of 198 college presidents also signed a letter encouraging President-elect Trump to advance human decency, equal rights, freedom of expression, and freedom from discrimination and to prevent harassment, hate, and acts of violence (Bennington College, 2017). In January 2017, following a presidential executive order designed to restrict immigration from certain countries, some college presidents likewise made public declarations in support of affirming their international students and scholars (Jenkins, 2017; Schlissel, 2017). These examples demonstrate that senior campus leaders speak out and advocate publicly for a variety of issues related to diversity and inclusion on campus, yet little is known about the impact of these administrators actions on the larger campus climate.

While it may appear that university leaders public advocacy is somewhat punctuated in todays political environment, this pattern of advocacy for diversity and inclusion is not new. Campuses have long been symbolic epicenters of civic discourse about contentious social issues in the United States. (Harris, 1969). Campus leaders have historically advocated for extending support to marginalized community members in advance of changes to state or federal regulations; for example, campus leaders publicly made the case for extending same-sex partner benefits to university employees (Capiccioso, 2005; Jaschik, 2007) and advocated for race-conscious admissions processes (Barnhardt et al., 2017; Stulberg & Chen, 2013). As colleges today, for instance, have experienced die-in demonstrations, protests, vigils, and rallies, making the broader #BlackLivesMatter (Keith & Mayer, 2016; Somashekhar, 2015; Theen, 2016), undocumented immigrant, and student-debt movements tangible on campuses, some administrative leaders have chosen to publicly discuss their universities positions on matters such as race, diversity, equity, and free speech (Jost, 2016; Kerwin, 2016; Miller, 2014; Severson & Brown, 2013; Svokos, 2015). Leaders less inclined to speak topically have often discussed the principles the university follows in responding to contentious events.  

Scholarship on campus leaders public advocacy and public statements has tended to examine communication strategies related to facilitating productive interaction with political leaders and other strategic constituencies (Cook, 1998; Duncan & Ball, 2011). In this work, campus leaders advocacy is evaluated for its role in advancing organizational objectives such as: (a) influencing state or federal policy (Cook, 1998), (b) leading peer institutions to take similar public positions for mutual strategic advantage (Garcia, 2007), (c) generating public support for values such as academic freedom (Gordon & Halper, 2009), or (d) promoting a viewpoint that reflects the universitys specific interests and mission (Balch, 2005). Scholarly discourse about university leaders advocacy has centered on when or how leaders have chosen to use their proverbial bully pulpits. Absent from these discussions is the understanding of whether senior campus leaders public advocacy has a discernable effect on the campus educational environment. Given the centrality of university leaders public advocacy in the current political and cultural context, we wonder, does public and vocal advocacy for educational values by senior campus leaders translate into cultivating a campus climate that corresponds to the values and messages being communicated in the leaders rhetoric?

Pragmatically, campus community members perceive campus leaders public advocacy as a tool for shaping the campus climate. For example, among those campuses experiencing recent bouts of activism, several have issued demands calling upon their university leaders to speak publicly on matters related to diversity, equity, or inclusion (Hoffman & Mitchell, 2016; Manjra, 2016; Wayt & Chessman, 2016). Issuing calls for public advocacy denote a widely held belief that such public affirmations by senior campus leaders can elevate the extent to which campus community members demonstrate respect for diverse people and ideas. Further, research on multicultural organizational development [MCOD] (Jackson, 2014) reveals that factors such as the compositional demographics and history of in/exclusion on a campus, along with routine interpersonal behaviors and collective perceptions each contribute to the quality of the campus climate (Bensimon & Malcom, 2012; Kezar, 2007b; Milem, Chang, & antonio, 2005; Williams, Berger & McClendon, 2005; Williams & Wade-Golden, 2013). These authors, in elaborating MCOD, are also clear in emphasizing that senior campus administrators play an important role in activating campus community members desires and motivations to work toward creating more diverse and inclusive campus communities. Moreover, organizational leaders public advocacy is construed as contributing to endogenous organizational change. Correspondingly, we seek to provide empirical insight regarding how senior leaders public advocacy contributes to (or detracts from) the extent to which campuses hold the capacity to create educational environments that affirm diverse ideas and people. What, if any, educational impact results from campus leaders public advocacy?

The most useful set of data to address our question came from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Core Commitments initiative (AAC&U, 2006), which used the Personal and Social Responsibility Institutional Inventory (PSRI). The PSRI is a climate survey that uses a liberal education framework to capture the extent to which community members perceive the campus climate as supporting diversity and inclusion (AAC&U, 2007a). The 2007 PSRI administration explicitly asked respondents about campus leaders public advocacy. Responses came from a wide range of community members, including students, academic administrators, student affairs staff, and senior campus leaders (presidents, provosts, vice presidents, and deans) on 23 campuses. In using the PSRI, our operational definition of educational values that support diversity and inclusion reflect both the liberal education framework of the survey and coincide with the MCOD conceptualization of campus climate. Therefore, the specific diversity and inclusion climate characteristics we evaluate gauge: the extent to which faculty teach about the importance of diverse intellectual perspectives, the degree to which the campus promotes domestic and global awareness of social, political, and economic issues, the relative safety that individuals feel in holding unpopular positions, and how respectful students are when discussing controversial issues.


Our study addresses (a) campus community members perceptions of the campus climate, (b) the ways perceptions function as a resource or liability for organizational change using the five dimensions of multicultural organizational development (MCOD), and (c) the role of senior campus leaders in shaping community members climate perceptions. With these foci, we have reviewed multiple literatures, including the empirical work associated with characteristics of diverse, inclusive, or equitable campus climates and the literature associated with the social psychology of communities and how leaders act upon these dynamics.


The terms organizational culture and organizational climate have been used interchangeably when discussing the importance of understanding the dominant meanings, social views, perceptions, and corresponding behaviors that permeate a college campus (Hart & Fellabaum, 2008; Smith, 2009). Theoretically, these constructs are distinct (Peterson, 1988; Peterson & Spencer, 1990), but they operate in important and dynamic ways with respect to shaping the nature and quality of the experiences and environment for individuals who study and work on college campuses.

It is well established that the culture of an organization impresses a dominant mode of interpreting and understanding organizational experiences and phenomena upon its members (Becher, 1984; Clark, 1972; Kuh & Whitt, 1988; Peterson & Spencer, 1990; Schein, 1992; Tierney, 1988). Culture is enduring and firmly rooted in an organizations founding ideals, which actually guide behavior, that tell group members how to perceive, think about, and feel about things (Schein, 1992, p. 22). Schein (1992) argued that these guiding organizational premises provide cognitive stability and manifest in practices, interactions, interpretations, and the ways in which groups and their members choose to react to their circumstances and environments. Like culture, climate also transmits meanings, proscribes typical behaviors, and imparts messages about what community members should think or feel (Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pedersen & Allen, 1999; Pope & LePeau, 2012; Smith, 2009). Organizational climate is distinct, however, from its progenitor, culture; climate is understood as being bounded by time and is pursuant to the prevalent social conditions, contemporary events, and structural forms to which the organization is subjected or must adhere (Peterson & Spencer, 1990). It is thus reasonable to conceptualize climate as being nested within a particular culture, with campus climate manifesting differentially at particular moments in time.


With respect to organizational change, historical and cataclysmic events tend to evoke cultural change, but intense, long-term, multifaceted efforts (Bauer, 1998; Peterson & Spencer, 1990) and episodes of contention can as well (Campbell, 2005). Arguably, the fixed or slow-moving nature of organizational culture renders some campus leaders feeling somewhat impotent in modifying it (especially for a campus culture that has endured over centuries in some cases). Alternately, organizational climate is predictably malleable given the ongoing adjustments in institutional goals and functions, shifts in decision patterns, entrances and exits of community members, and changes in organizational members routine behaviors and interactions (Peterson & Spencer, 1990). As such, senior campus leaders have the capacity to pursue strategies and exert leadership to shape the campus climate. We assert that this penetrable aspect of climate is a fundamental reason that scholarship on campus climate is so often conjoined with discussions of organizational development, transformation, and change (see Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pederson, & Allen, 1998; Pope, Reynolds, & Mueller, 2014; Rankin & Reason, 2005; Williams, 2013).

Among the varied reasons campuses have been willing (or pressured) to pursue change throughout history, issues relating to demographic diversity and equal or fair treatment of individuals across status differences have been major impetuses (Chang, 2001; Milem, 2001; Pope & LePeau, 2012;Barnhardt, et al., 2017). A substantial contribution of the formative campus climate research was providing evidence that various social identity groups (race, gender identity, sexual orientation, social class, ability, etc.) have categorically unique (and often negative) perceptions of their campus experiences (Beilke & Yssel, 1999; Brown, Clarke, Gortmaker, & Robinson-Keilig, 2004; Harper & Quaye, 2014; Rankin & Reason, 2005; Renn, 2010). The pattern of observing group-based differences in how one experiences the campus climate is evident among students (Allan & Madden, 2006; Pope & LePeau, 2012; Reid & Radhakrishnan, 2003; Sandler & Hall, 1986) as well as faculty and staff (Mayhew, Grunwald, & Dey, 2006; Sandler & Hall, 1986; Turner, 2002; Victorino, Nylund-Gibson, & Conley, 2013). The common conclusion across these bodies of research is that the relative quality of the campus climate has consequences for individuals embedded in the organization. Climate influences outcomes such as student persistence (August & Waltman, 2004; Sandler & Hall, 1986), faculty retention (Jayakumar, Howard, Allen, & Han, 2009), personal well-being (Cress & Ikeda, 2003; Lindholm & Szelényi, 2008; Woodford, Kulick, & Atteberry, 2015), and performance, such as educational achievement or work outcomes (Chang, Denson, Sáenz, & Misa, 2006; Nelson Laird, 2005). Given the evidence that campus climates are culpable for contributing to undesirable outcomes for some community membersespecially for minoritized (Harper, 2012) individualscampus diversity-related climate change (Bensimon & Malcolm, 2012; Clark, Fasching-Varner, Brimhall-Vargas, 2012; Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Pope, Reynolds, Mueller, 2014; Williams, 2013; Williams, Berger, & McClendon, 2005) has become a scholarly and practical goal for the field of higher education.  

Purposeful, planned, or teleological organizational change and transformation processes (Kezar & Eckel, 2002) are viewed as means for implementing diversity-based change goals  (Kezar, 2007b), which operate as antecedents to campuses realizing their broader aspiration of creating a postsecondary educational system that is equitable and inclusive and allows all community members to be affirmed and to realize their potential. In order to meet these ambitions, multicultural organizational development ([MCOD], Hurtado et al., 1999; Hurtado, Alvarez, Guillermo-Wann, Cuellar, & Arellano, 2012; Jackson, 2014) has emerged as a framework for understanding the mechanisms that produce the relative character or quality of a particular campuss climate. MCOD posits that a campus tacitly or overtly produces a climate based on four dimensions: (a) the compositional representativeness of diverse groups accounting for an array of social identity characteristics (including, but not limited to, race and ethnicity), (b) the historical context of how the organization has treated members of social identity groups (e.g., the relative inclusion or exclusion extended to people of color in particular), (c) the resulting psychological or affective response that community members experience on a routine basis, and (d) the behavioral interactions that occur between community members with regularity (Hurtado et al., 1999). From MCODs initial framing, a fifth dimension has been elaborated: (e) the structural features of the organization, reflecting patterns of decision making, policy enactment, statements of values, or organizational routines, which result in affirming/undermining particular people or ideas (Milem, Chang, & antonio, 2005). The MCOD dimensions, as features of campus climate, are simultaneously individual and organizational processes imparting, defining, and proscribing affective, cognitive perceptions and behavioral experiences. Hurtado et al.s (2012) summary highlighted that while MCOD was originally conceptualized to make sense of how undergraduate students differentially experience their campuses according to their racial/ethnic identity backgrounds, it has been expanded to operate as a framework for understanding the campus climate for other campus community members as well. It is largely accepted that all campus stakeholdersstudents, faculty, and staffexperience, perceive, and produce the substantive climate on a particular campus (Hart & Fellabaum, 2008).  


Diversity-related change has gained enthusiasm from leading higher education trade organizations as a strategic organizational imperative, captured by the moniker inclusive excellence, denoting that educational quality is concomitant with equitable and inclusive practices for diverse people and ideas (ACE, n.d.; AAC&U, n.d., AAC&U, 2015; NADOHE, n.d.). This enthusiasm has translated, in part, to identifying promising organizational practices and administrative actions that cultivate inclusion toward improving the campus climate (Milem, Chang, & antonio, 2005; Williams, 2013; Williams & Clowney, 2007) and realizing better outcomes for all community members.    

The structural dimension of MCOD (Milem, Chang, & antonio, 2005) stresses the agency that organizations have to enact policies, procedures, routines, and decision patterns, as well as to adopt formalized missions and symbols that contribute to cultivating a particular campus climate and atmosphere for community members (Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, & Gurin, 2002; Pope, Reynolds, & Mueller, 2004). While structural aspects of campus climate are often transactional (for example, a policy or practice can work to expand the representativeness of the pool of likely enrollees or workers at the university), these structures also act as communication instruments about the organizations values or principles. Further, the structural dimension, which includes actions taken by senior campus administrators, has been found to (de)legitimate certain behaviors or status hierarchies and impart meanings regarding who and what is valued in the community (Stulberg & Chen, 2013). The structural dimension of MCOD thus tacitly affirms that campuses, as organizations capable of purposively cultivating a particular climate, are distinctive social actors, which render them capable of exerting intention and attributing meaning to social phenomena (King, Felin, & Whetten, 2010). In many respects, the structural dimension of campus climate operates as the de facto sense-giving mechanism of the organization (Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991). Moreover, the whole concept of MCOD (and even campus climate in general) relies on the assumption that campuses are more than just collective legal entities or sites for social interaction between individuals. The inherent change and transformational thesis of MCOD presupposes that campuses can willfully take steps, through tangible administrative actions, educational processes, and communication routines, to reshape campus climates in particular ways such that the result is environments that are more affirming, equitable, and inclusive for diverse people and ideas.  


The research on improving the campus climate to affirm diversity in all its forms and to act inclusively tends to be somewhat bifurcated with respect to gauging the end-goal or assessing the quality of a climate. There is a strand that focuses on individual learning or well-being that flows from campus initiatives or from compositional diversity (Smith et al., 1997). The individual focus is perhaps best evidenced in Hurtados conceptualization of the Multicultural Model for Diverse Learning Environments (see Hurtado, Alvarado, & Guillermo-Wann, 2015; Hurtado et al., 2012). Hurtado et al.s model characterizes the idealized outcomes associated with dimensions of campus climate as being educational in nature, including individuals habits of mind/skills for lifelong learning, competencies for a multicultural world, inclusive of retention and degree attainment (p. 48). Another strand of research uses organizational-level characteristics such as: campuses having diversity goals in their strategic plans and mission statements, hiring administrators with responsibility for diversity initiatives, conducting diversity climate studies, scaling up campus budgets and programming related to diversity, and adopting inclusive policies, as artifacts that reveal a campuss commitments to diversity and inclusion (Kezar, 2007a; Kezar, 2007b; Kezar & Eckel, 2002; Williams, 2013). Both approaches fold neatly into the conceptualization of MCOD as a construct, but each have some conceptual limitations. In their synthesis of the contemporary scholarship related to racial diversity in higher education, Clarke and antonio (2012) argued that the work on diverse campus climates has been encumbered by situating learning as an individualized process; they advocate for scholars to look outside the individual to the social community for new answers.

Building on Clarke and antonios (2012) recommendation, coupled with our understanding of MCOD, we look to the potential socializing influence that senior campus leaders can exercise to encourage, promote, and affirm educational values related to diversity and inclusion by virtue of their positional (structural) status and the inherent power of their symbolic public advocacy. We select leaders public advocacy as the formalization of organizational values and expectations, instead of the campus mission statement, which is similarly framed as a structural artifact revealing a campuss relative commitment to diversity and inclusion (Creamer & Ghoston, 2013; Morphew & Hartley, 2006). While missions are certainly an embodiment of organizational values, commitments, and expectations (Meacham & Gaff, 2006) that exert a socializing influence over community members conducts and beliefs, missions are relatively static without a direction or magnitude. Gauging how much exposure campus community members have to senior leaders public advocacy, and to which sorts of messages, may capture the organizations values in a more nuanced manner. Through leaders public advocacy, espoused organizational values become linked to a particular moment, experience, and context; therefore, the transmission of the message more closely resembles the unique conceptual requirements of climatebeing time-bound, context-dependent, and reflective of contemporary realities and events (Peterson & Spencer, 1990).

While we know that educational administrators and practitioners possess the capacity to act as institutional agents such that they can improve the educational climate for minoritized students (Stanton-Salazar, 1997; Rendón, Jalamo, & Nora, 2000), few studies have considered the unique effects of senior campus leaders institutional agency (Bensimon, 2007). Because of their professional roles, senior leaders possess formal organizational authority to communicate expectations about community member conduct, and because of leaders status in the organization, they can often compel or encourage people to meet these expectations (Birnbaum, 1988). Our focus on students, facultys, and staff members impressions of leaders public advocacy coincides with the social psychology of change, which posits that organizational leaders have the agency and capacity to launch and amplify interpretive frames of meaning about organizational member conduct (Gioia, Thomas, Clark, & Chittipeddi, 1994; Mael & Ashforth, 1992). Such meanings are foundational for producing collective sentiments and behaviors among community members that align with the espoused vision of what constitutes a collective good in that community (Seyranian, 2014; Seyranian & Bligh, 2008; Snow, 2004). Emerging research is identifying benefits that flow to educational communities from their leaders approach to public communication and speech (Barnhardt, Sheets, & Pasquesi, 2014; Park, Daly, & Guerra, 2013; Seyranian, 2014). We aim to add to this emerging area of research by examining the extent to which any relationship exists between leaders public advocacy and the relative quality of the campus climates for promoting diversity and inclusion.  



As part of its Core Commitments initiative, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) initiated the development of the Personal and Social Responsibility Institutional Inventory (PSRI) through a grant supported by the John Templeton Foundation (AAC&U, 2006). This instrument was designed to gauge the degree of support for five campus climate dimensions(a) striving for excellence, (b) cultivating personal and academic integrity, (c) contributing to the larger community, (d) taking seriously the perspectives of others, and (e) developing competence in ethical and moral reasoning (AAC&U, 2006). These campus climate dimensions were identified by a team of leading scholars and advisors to AAC&U (2006), and informed by the psychological and developmental literatures (Swaner, 2004). The instrument was pilot-tested with a response group of 1,321 individuals, with subsequent item revisions following factor analytic and reliability testing. The PSRI instrument consisted of approximately 150 items, including (a) attitudinal items, measuring ones level of agreement on a four-point scale; (b) behavioral items, measuring the frequency that one experienced or observed a particular campus phenomenon on a 3-point scale; and (c) open-ended items (Barnhardt et al., 2010). Additional items gathered information about respondents personal backgrounds and campus experiences.

The PSRI was developed with two parallel, largely parsimonious, survey formsone for students and one for professionals. While students were easy to identify, the professional classification was broadly conceived, including campus employees in a broad sense of the definition, encompassing those holding academic or student affairs administrative positions and faculty with any level of responsibility for teaching undergraduatesincluding full-time, tenure/tenure-track employees, as well as part-time faculty, adjuncts, lecturers, and so on. (Barnhardt et al., 2010). All data were collected in the fall of 2007 from the 23 campuses. AAC&U selected the participating campuses based on application materials from over 125 institutions that applied. This sample of 23 campuses was not deliberately designed to be representative of the universe of higher education, although it included a range of institutions including public, private, community colleges, sectarian institutions, large research universities, and regional comprehensive institutions (Barnhard et al., 2010). In total, 158,332 college students and 24,243 campus professionals from 23 campuses were invited to respond to the PSRI survey. The 23 participating campuses each received $25,000 in matching funds to encourage their local campus-based efforts to support and foster personal and social responsibility on campus (AAC&U, 2007b). Although the administration of the PSRI continues today (see http://www.psri.hs.iastate.edu/), the 2007 administration was the largest simultaneous data collection of the four constituent groups (students, faculty, academic and student affairs administrators) wherein campuses were not charged to participate. External funding facilitated and incentivized campus involvement in the project at that time.

Electronic data collection occurred in the fall semester of 2007. In total, 32,970 responses were collected; three-fourths of the respondents were college students and one-fourth were campus professionals. Response rates varied by campus, with 4%92% for students and 19%81% for professionals; the averages were 14% and 36%, respectively.

The five Core Commitment dimension sections were presented to the student respondents in rotating order, to reduce the possibility of systematic omission of data due to survey-response fatigue or respondent attrition (Barnhardt et al., 2010). After accounting for survey attrition, for any one of the five dimensions, slightly less than half of the student sample provided responses. In total, across the students and professionals, 11,070 cases had useable data for our items of interest. Probability weights were applied to this group to assure that the demographic representation of the sample group mirrored the student and professional composition for each campus. Student weights adjusted for race, gender, and class year, and professional weights adjusted for race and gender. The weighted total consisted of 10,693 cases, also with three-fourths students and one-fourth professionals.

Informed by the aforementioned literature related to inclusive campus climates and multicultural organizational development, we selected outcomes that characterized respondents impressions of the campus climate and denoted the extent to which respondents perceived that the climate affirmed diverse ideas and people. Our outcomes captured structural, psychological, and behavioral aspects of MCOD, and we treated the compositional aspects of MCOD as control variables. We did not have an adequate survey item that measured the historical aspect of MCOD. We did, however, control for where a respondent was studying/working, which was likely the closest approximation to capture distinctive campus characteristics related to a historical legacy of inclusion or exclusion on a campus.


We selected five outcomes; three items focused on structural aspects of climate, and one item focused on the psychological and behavioral climate dimensions. The structural dimension of the climate for diversity and inclusion reflected survey items that revealed community members perceptions of the core technical features of campuses; that is, features of the teaching and learning environments and the degree to which they emphasized diverse perspectives. Items included respondents level of agreement ratings of the extent to which: faculty teach about the importance of considering diverse intellectual viewpoints, the campus actively promotes awareness of U.S. social, political and economic issues, and the campus actively promotes awareness of global social, political and economic issues. We began to evaluate the psychological dimension of the climate for diversity and inclusion through choosing the item in which community members had to rate the degree to which they felt it is safe to hold unpopular positions on campus. We also chose an item to approximate the behavioral dimension of campus climate by including the item in which respondents rated the extent to which students are respectful of one another when discussing controversial topics or perspectives. For all of these items, respondents indicated their level of agreement on a 4-point Likert-type scale, and the items were standardized (see Table 1 for item metrics and descriptive statistics).

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics for Variables in Analysis of University Leaders' Public Advocacy






Faculty teach about the importance of considering diverse intellectual viewpoints^



It is "safe" to hold unpopular positions on this campus^



Students are respectful of one another when discussing controversial issues or perspectives^



This campus actively promotes awareness of U.S. social, political, and economic issues^



This campus actively promotes awareness of global social, political, and economic issues^



Independent variables


Non-White (0=White, 1=Non-White)



Male (0=female, 1=Male)



Student (0=Professional, 1=Student)






Competitiveness of campus (6-level order measure of increasing competitiveness)



% White academic employees



% White of service/support employees



% White of all students enrolled



Senior Leaders . . .


Publicly advocate for the need for students to become active and involved citizens~



Publicly advocate for the need for students to respect perspectives different from their own~



Take public stands on ethical and moral issues~



Communicate higher expectations for the students in terms of their academic work ethic~



Notes: N=10,693; ^ Response options included strongly disagree (1), disagree somewhat (2), agree somewhat (3), strongly agree (4); ~ Response options included: never (1), occasionally (2), frequently (3). The five outcome variables were standardized for analyses generating a mean = 0, sd= 1.


Our independent variables consisted of three broad conceptual clusters: (a) respondent background characteristics, (b) campus characteristics, and (c) the relative exposure a respondent had to senior campus leaders public advocacy related to four educational valuescitizenship, valuing diverse perspectives, moral and ethical conduct, and academic effort. Personal background characteristics indicated ones race, gender, and campus role (a dummy variable denoting student versus professional). Campus characteristics consisted of the particular campus where one studied or worked, a measure of campus selectivity, and the compositional diversity of the campus. Campus competitiveness was measured using the Barrons Profile of American Colleges 2004 selectivity rating, which is based on SAT, ACT, admissions, and high school grades, and is quite consistent over time (Bastedo & Jaquette, 2011). Compositional diversity was measured in multiple ways in order to capture the relative composition of the campus community in a multifaceted manner. We included three variables measuring the relative homogeneity of the student body, the academic/professional staff, and the campus employees working in service and support areas such as buildings and grounds, cleaning and maintenance, skilled trades, bus drivers, and so on. These data were retrieved from the 2007 National Center for Educational Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). We assert that these multiple measures of compositional diversity offer extensive coverage of the ways in which compositional diversity contributes to the overall ethos of the campus climate. Whether it is overt or tacit, perceptions of climate are shaped by patterns of representation. Campus community members perceive their surroundings by making sense of who attends class, who congregates by the bus stop,  who is driving the bus, who shows up to alumni celebrations, who plants flowers before graduation weekend, and who occupies the deans office. These perceptions are not limited to race, but race is especially salient in the aforementioned literature relating to the campus climate for diversity and inclusion.

The third group of variables consisted of the leaders public advocacy variables. These included four items that indicated respondents ratings of how often senior leaders advocated for educational values. Respondents chose from the options of never, occasionally, or frequently to describe whether senior leaders: (a) publicly advocate for the need for students to become active and involved citizens, (b) publicly advocate for the need for students to respect perspectives different from their own, (c) take public stands on ethical and moral issues, and (d) communicate higher expectations for the students in terms of their academic work ethic. These four items describe particular and actionable types of leadership and advocacy behaviors that specify discrete behaviors. We decided to evaluate these items separately because our analytical aim was to go beyond focusing on senior leaders engagement in public advocacy to evaluate how exposure to advocacy addressing particular types of educational messages contributed to community members perceptions of the campus climate. Of the four forms of public speech we considered, advocacy for academic effort was the most common (μ=2.38), followed by being active citizens (μ=2.29), respecting diverse ideas (μ=2.24), and taking moral and ethical stands (μ=2.12); see Table 1. All survey respondents were explicitly instructed at the start of the survey that senior campus administrators referred to the president, provost, vice presidents, and deans.


We began by examining the correlations for all variables. For each outcome, we used ordinary least squares to generate a blocked regression model examining the effects of exposure to senior leaders public advocacy for particular educational values on the campus communitys perception of the climate, while controlling for respondents personal background characteristics and campus characteristics. We generated variance inflation factor scores for all models and confirmed that our data were suitable for regression modeling with VIF scores well below the recommendation of 10 (O'Brien, 2007). Standardized coefficients are reported below to represent the relative magnitude of the relationships of the independent variables and the outcomes.


The campuses that participated in the 2007 PSRI administration may be unique in that they were selected for their prior commitments and efforts to improve the campus climate. To this end, our data may slightly overemphasize administrative behavior and advocacy that is proactive or intentional in articulating aspirations for the campus community. Even so, the 23 participating campuses in the 2007 sample were chosen from a larger group of 125 campus applicants, and as part of Core Commitments, 300 campus presidents signed a public statement endorsing the five dimensions. Based on these patterns, we assert that campuses that might be inclined to implement the findings generated by this study would be those campuses that hold similar climate aspirations as those that were part of the Core Commitments projects.  It is also notable that the data from this study were gathered in 2007. The time period in which data are collected is always a salient matter in studies of campus climate since campus climate is a time-bounded construct. It is possible that data from 2007 captures other contextual dynamics that were unique to that time which may be different than the environments campuses currently experience. The prevailing issues in 2007 were immigration, the war in Iraq, healthcare, and the economy (Carroll, 2007). As previously mentioned, the role of university leaders public advocacy and speech is notably more pronounced now given the urgency of campus activism and the overall political epoch in which the United States is situated. Even so, the novelty of the structure of the data with the surveys parallel construction across different campus stakeholder groups suggests that it is a rich context for exploring mechanisms that shape campus climate in a comprehensive manner.


Senior leaders public advocacy is a pronounced resource for creating a campus climate where faculty teach about the importance of considering diverse views, where people feel safe to hold unpopular positions, where students are respectful while discussing controversial topics, and where campuses promote domestic and global social, political, and economic issues. Of the four types of senior leaders public advocacy we examined (citizenship, diverse perspectives, ethical and moral conduct, and academic effort), senior leaders advocacy for students needing to respect perspectives different from their own generated the largest effect (β= 0.260, p <.001) on the extent to which the campus perceives the faculty as teaching about the importance of considering diverse views (see Table 2). Senior leaders’ public advocacy for students needing to be active and involved citizens contributed to respondents’ perceptions that the campus actively promotes awareness of U.S. social, political, and economic issues (β= 0.274, p <.001) and global issues as well (β= 0.289, p <.001). Senior leaders’ public advocacy for students’ academic effort appeared to have a relatively similar effect on each of the five outcomes, with coefficients hovering between β= 0.079 and β= 0.109 (all with p <.001 significance levels). This suggests that the effect of publicly advocating for high academic expectations contributed to the educational climate in a relatively consistent manner, offering a generally positive influence over campus community members climate perceptions.

Table 2. A Model of Senior Campus Leaders' Advocacy on Perceptions of Campus Climate Regarding Diverse Perspectives



Faculty teach about the importance of considering diverse intellectual viewpoints


It is "safe" to hold unpopular positions on this campus


Students are respectful of one another when discussing controversial issues or perspectives


This campus actively promotes awareness of U.S. social, political, and economic issues


This campus actively promotes awareness of global social, political, and economic issues

Non-White (v. White)













Male (v. female)














Student (v. professional)



























Competitiveness of campus
















% White academic employees














% White of service/support employees















% White of all students enrolled














Senior Leaders...


Publicly advocate for the need for students to become active and involved citizens*
















Publicly advocate for the need for students to respect perspectives different from their own*
















Take public stands on ethical and moral issues*
















Communicate higher expectations for the students in terms of their academic work ethic*



























ΔR2 change
(with 4 advocacy variables* added)
















Total R2
















(adjusted R2)

















*p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001


Across the outcomes, the largest portion of the variance was explained by the block of variables that accounted for how often a respondent experienced senior leaders publicly advocating for educational values. For all models, the ΔR2 ranged from 0.117 to 0.238, while the overall effect sizes for the full models generated R2 values ranging from 0.141 to 0.258. These findings reflect that for all outcomes, respondents’ personal background characteristics and the compositional characteristics of the campus explained a smaller portion of the variance (1.2%−7%) in the outcomes as compared to senior leaders’ advocacy. Even though the magnitude of influence of respondents’ personal characteristics was somewhat modest, we observed notable and significant patterns. Specifically, respondents racial identities influenced their perceptions of the extent to which they felt as if the campus environment was a safe space to hold unpopular positions. Students and employees from racial identities other than white regarded the campus as being less safe (β= -0.044, p <.001). Student status (as compared to being a professional/campus employee) afforded respondents a dramatic advantage, more so than any other personal characteristics in the model, for predicting a respondent’s perceived safety to hold unpopular positions on campus (β= 0.209, p <.001).

Regarding campus characteristics, campus competitiveness contributed the most pronounced influence on the five outcomes, and the pattern was consistent—as competitiveness increased, respondents tended to rate the campus climate as placing less value on diverse perspectives as measured by the five outcomes (findings for competitiveness had values ranging from β = -0.085 to -0.157, all p <.001). Also, with respect to compositional diversity of campuses, the relative racial characteristics of the student, academic staff, and service and support employee communities each exerted an independent influence on respondents perceived psychological safety of holding unpopular positions on their campuses. When campus racial homogeneity was greater, the relative perception of how safe it was to hold unpopular positions declined. Our findings also support the inverse: when there was greater compositional diversity within the student, academic, and service/support employee communities, respondents perceptions of the relative safety to hold unpopular positions on campus improved (see Table 2). When considering the influence of the composition of the three groups alongside one another (students, academic employees, and service/support employees), academic employees (made up of faculty, academic and student affairs administrators) exerted the most sizeable influence in the perceived safety to hold unpopular positions. Greater compositional diversity among the academic employees was also associated with respondents holding the perception that faculty taught about the importance of considering diverse intellectual viewpoints (β= -0.036, p <.01). The compositional diversity among campus service and support employees was also negatively associated with respondents holding perceptions that students were respectful while discussing controversies (β= -0.039, p <.01), and that the campus worked to promote awareness of domestic social, political, and economic issues (β= -0.030, p <.05).


Our findings offer practical applications for senior administrative leaders in higher education regarding how they might use their public speech to work toward improving aspects of the structural, psychological, and behavioral dimensions of campus climate for diversity and inclusion. The findings also provide insights about how higher education, as a field, studies campus climate. This analysis demonstrates that evaluating multiple stakeholders backgrounds and impressions alongside one another offers an added layer of understanding about how each group contributes to the educational climate that is produced on campus.

We observed that senior campus leaders public speech related to educational values (citizenship, valuing diverse perspective, moral and ethical conduct, and academic effort) operated as a positive resource for improving the campus climate for diversity. When campus community members experienced sustained and frequent exposure to administrative leaders who publicly discussed educational values, the campus could expect to experience positive gains in aspects of the psychological, behavioral, and structural dimensions of the campus climate for diversity. These findings extend and support previous research highlighting the pivotal influence of university leaders speech in advancing the aspirations and values of the campus community (Barnhardt, Sheets, & Pasquesi, 2014; Park, Daly, & Guerra, 2013; Seyranian, 2014).

Seemingly, changing (increasing) the frequency of speech related to educational values is easily translatable to administrative practice. If a campus aspires to become a more affirming place for diverse people and ideas, in addition to leaders publicly communicating clear positions about moral and ethical issues, senior university administrators can be more deliberate in articulating a public narrative that calls students to be active and involved citizens, respect differing perspectives, and exert a great deal of academic effort. Adopting such an administrative approach requires little to no additional funding or infrastructure. Instead, these organizational changes can be made by senior campus leaders (presidents, vice presidents, deans) exercising more intention over the time they devote to reaching out to the internal campus community (consisting of students, academic employees, and service/support employees), and motivating other senior leaders to do the same. For some campuses and senior administrators, redirecting the communication approach to elevate outreach to the internal campus community may be a dramatic shift in the overall public communication/relationship strategy, especially when a campus already has a robust plan devoted to communicating messages beyond the campus confinesto alumni, donors, lawmakers, foundations, firms/employers, and so on. (Henderson, 2001; Hall & Baker, 2003). Expanding the repertoire of communication from showing and telling outside stakeholders what the campus does, to also robustly articulating a recurring message about core educational values on campusdirectly to the people being educated (students), or to those doing the educating/supporting the educational process (employees)may be a formative shift in the administrative and communication routines of university leaders. The mere thought of intentional advocacy to campus community members beyond cursory formal socialization or symbolic processes (such as at a student or employee orientation, the state of the university address, or commencement) may be construed as categorically unconventional.

While producing precise values-based educational messages that are frequent and widely shared seems a straightforward task, generating consistent and deliberate public speech that focuses on clearly communicating organizational values, and directing such messages towards a community, can be a radical act. For example, regarding the descriptive patterns we observed: senior leaders, on average, tend to advocate that students exert academic effort most often, and take public stands on moral and ethical issues least often. In many respects, these most basic reflections of senior leaders advocacy portray the potential ease of reaching campus community members with certain types of speech as compared to others. Encouraging academic effort is largely noncontroversial, whereas taking a moral or ethical position on issues holds far greater potential to evoke disagreement. In fact, a university leaders hesitancy to engage in publicly advocating or position-taking on matters of diversity or equity or ethics and morals may insulate the institution from falling out of favor with lawmakers, funders, foundations, or other external stakeholders. There are powerful forces both inside and outside the academy (see ACTA, 2013; Flaherty, 2013; Lukianoff, 2012; Thomason, 2015) that aim to, and are arguably successful in, stifling leaders public speech either tacitly or overtly. Hollander (2012) observed that universities overall public engagement approaches have grown apolitical and devoid of much-needed position-taking in recent decades. The shifts that Hollander described may have had a deleterious effect on senior leaders personal courage or willingness to engage in the sort of public advocacy or position-taking on public issues and collective problems that is needed to inspire widespread desire for change.

Our findings also offer an expanded picture of the ways in which the demographic composition of the campus community intersects with and functions to shape the educational climate of a college or university. In particular, the extent to which all campus community members felt safe to hold unpopular positions on campus declined when there was greater homogeneity among students, academic employees, and service and support employees. This suggests that in order to create an environment where diverse discourse is more likely, campuses need to be attentive to the demographic composition across the entire organization. The learning environment has long been viewed as being shaped by students compositional diversity so that students are presented with an opportunity structure to engage with peers from different backgrounds (Chang, Denson, Saenz, & Misa, 2006), and the compositional representativeness of the instructional faculty and academic and student affairs staff is understood to assist students in identifying role models and mentors with whom they can identify (Dayton, Gonzalez-Vasquez, Martinez, & Plum, 2004; Hurtado et al.,1999). Far less, however, is known about the impact of the composition of service and trades staff on the educational climate, or how all of these groups shape and influence the educational environment in concert. Aside from campus community members feeling a greater sense of safety to discuss controversial topics, greater compositional diversity within the service and trades employees on campus positively contributes to the extent to which students are respectful when discussing controversial issues or perspectives as well as the extent to which campus community members feel that the campus promotes awareness of U.S. social, political, and economic issues. More specifically, we observed only the demographic composition of the service and trades employees, and not the composition of the students and faculty, to be significantly related to the level of respect that students extended to one another. We are intrigued by this finding, but we believe that this pattern of significance should be interpreted with some caution until future studies can explore whether such patterns are replicable with other data sets when combined with the IPEDS metrics for these variables.

We hope that our novel findings related to service and trades employees on campus will prompt the field to further contemplate the dynamics underlying why these relationships might exist. We assert that, on account of service and trades employees being structurally on the periphery (Birnbaum, 1988), as opposed to the centrality of the instructional labor force (faculty), the contributions of campus workers on the educational environment are underspecified. This state of affairs is problematic for a few reasons. Service functions (dining, busing, campus safety, etc.) are among the first to be outsourced to third parties beyond the university. Outsourcing, as a labor practice, results in the university (a) giving up its primary discretion over hiring in these positions (thus becoming less able to exercise agency over who is employed), and (b) distancing itself from overseeing job preparation and ongoing supervision. Releasing itself from control over these processes may result in reducing service employees exposure to and understanding of campus values, aspirations, and goals, including reducing the likelihood that service employees will conceptualize their work and interactions on campuses as part of a holistic and seamless educational experience for students and community members. Secondly, along with the labor structure of service or trades functions in the academy, there is a pattern of action suggesting that students are thoughtful and aware of the contributions that service and trades employees make to the educational environment. For example, the past two decades of campus activism have been punctuated by students being vocal allies of campus service and trades employees through their support of fair or living wage campaigns (Walsh, 2000) and their advocacy for fair contract procurement practices by the university (Einwohner & Spencer, 2005; VanDyke, Dixon, & Carlon, 2007), among other initiatives focused on the contributions of contingent and under-employed faculty (Barnhardt, Trolian, An, Rossmann, & Morgan, In Press; Walsh, 2000). These student campaigns have been framed or motivated by student organizers viewing service and trades employees as legitimate campus community members (Barnhardt et al., In Press). That is, student allies have taken an inclusive stance such that employment status differences are not a sufficient justification for the university to be released from its philosophical and democratic values, nor from the social responsibility that flows from these ideals (Boyte, 2005).

Beyond contemplating the educational contributions of all campus workers, findings from this study compel future work on a number of other issues.  First, we need to better understand how senior campus leaders target and implement internal campus communications. Is public advocacy intentional or accidental? Is it reliant upon a campus leaders personal charisma or comfort level?  We need to learn more about how displays of advocacy are dictated by organizational administrative processes. For example, public relations office staff members who advise presidents, provosts, vice presidents, and deans on their public communication strategy have typically come to their positions through marketing, journalism, or governmental relations. They are not educators per se, so public relations campus professionals may overlook or underspecify the educational processes and needs associated with pursuing internal outreach to campus community members. More pointedly, how capable are public relations workers in aiding campus leaders with their teachers-in-chief roles?  Studying what public relations workers do and the nature of their advice to campus leaders can help identify promising practices or blind spots in this type of work. Outside of public relations, we need to know more about other organizational conditions, contexts, and processes that support senior campus leaders in becoming public advocates on controversial issues. While there is already some preliminary research on this topic (Boyte, 2005), it remains ripe for additional exploration. Finally, our findings suggest that studies of campus climate should work to combine as many campus stakeholders (students, faculty, administrators, and service/trades employees) perspectives and experiences as possible in order to decipher the contributions and effects such groups have on one another. The lived experience of climate is holistic, yet studies of campus climate can be less so; new data structures and research designs can work toward filling in the gaps.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 8, 2018, p. 1-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22281, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:29:13 PM

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  • Cassie L. Barnhardt
    University of Iowa
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    CASSIE L. BARNHARDT is an Assistant Professor in the department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies, and is a Faculty Associate with the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education (CRUE) at the University of Iowa.
  • Amanda Mollet
    University of Iowa
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    AMANDA MOLLET is a researcher and doctoral student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of Iowa.
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    University of Michigan
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    CARSON W. PHILLIPS is a Research Specialist in the Office of Budget and Planning at the University of Michigan.
  • Ryan Young
    University of Iowa
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    RYAN L. YOUNG holds a College of Education SGA Fellowship, and is researcher and doctoral student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of Iowa.
  • Jessica Sheets
    University of Iowa
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    JESSICA K. E. SHEETS holds a Presidential Fellowship, and is a researcher and doctoral candidate in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of Iowa.
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